Thomas strapped on his belts for his gear and his gun holster. He pulled on his trench coat as Rhae geared up as well. An eerie keening pealed over the town’s bells. Both Rhae and Thomas paused before they rushed out of the saloon with weapons drawn.
Though the moon was full, the sky was overcast. Lazy shadows from the clouds twisted the light over the shops and street. Neither of them knew what they were looking for as an uneasy hush drifted across the town now that both the bells and the keening had stopped. Thomas looked over his shoulder and nodded to the barkeeper. The frightened man silently shut the doors and locked them. Across the street was the stables and the station for the stage-coach. He couldn’t detect any movement through the darkness of the windows. Walking down the street he scanned the bank, the sheriff’s office, the grocer’s, the postman’s – all silent. Where is everyone? And what made that keening sound?
Still gripping his magnum, he scanned the rooftops for possible signs. The quiet of the night buzzed with a soft high pitch in his ears. He hated that. Something was out there. Something raised the alarm. Couldn’t it just make some noise? Even the keening was better than this whine. Rhae nudged him sharply with her elbow, interrupting his internal rant. He turned away from the rooftops to see fog roiling down the street towards them.
“Sweet Vesta,” Thomas said. He removed his shades and pocketed them.
The fog heaved against the buildings and lurched forward, almost as if propelled by an unrelenting will. In moments the fog swaddled the entire town. Thomas felt Rhae press her back to him as he caught darting movements of shadows weave around them. Tittering seeped through the fog and was swiftly answered with same keening they heard before. Moonlight broke through the cloud cover, causing the fog to glimmer with spectral luster. At the edge of town approached a person dressed in a gray yukata. Whomever it was stood about the same height as Thomas from what he could tell. A simple black cord at the nape of the neck held the flowing long white hair in place. The katana gleamed in the soft light but the stranger’s face remained expressionless as the keening quieted again.
“Who are you?” Thomas said. His finger was still ready at the trigger. “What do you want?”
Creeping through the fog, the shadows increased in number as the tittering grew louder. They were surrounded but he couldn’t tell what or how many. The stranger remained silent and motionless as if waiting for something.
One shadow got closer to Thomas and took shape. It was as if the fog created it. White became black. It appeared to be a malformed large dog of some kind. Ribs protruded from its sides at odd angles. Patches of hide dangled from its muzzle and under belly. The tail was just a collection of bare bone wrapped in tattered fur. Where the eyes should have been were now just glowing flickers of sickly green light. Claws and fangs all broken and dripped with something Thomas didn’t want to think about. Everything about this creature said dead and rotting but it had no smell and no aura. From what Thomas’ senses could tell, it was nothing. As if it could read his thoughts, it emitted the tittering sound they heard before. Once again, the keening followed through the fog. More pairs of the sickly green light appeared in the fog. Too many for Thomas to count. As the keening died down the clouds covered the moon, returning the fog to darkness.
“Lead the way.”
Thomas shot the dog thing in front of him, knocking it back with a skid. His shot thundered through the air but was barely heard over their keening. He watched it shake it off and lunge at him. He squeezed the trigger two more times as he back stepped into Rhae’s wake.
“This shit isn’t slowing them down.”
Thomas covered her as she continued to load and shoot her crossbow. One ripped through the sleeve of his trench coat as he reloaded the magnum with a speed-loader. It just barely missed his skin. He fell back in time for Rhae to take a shot right in its eye socket. She hauled him up by the arm and moved back the way they came. Thomas followed, taking care to watch behind them. He shot three more of the dog creatures before he noticed the stranger was now missing. The town had become deathly quiet and sunlight was starting to break the fog.
“Rhae,” Thomas said.
He turned to look for his partner. He found her held captive by the head of her hair in one hand of the stranger. Rhae’s body hung limp as his heart fluttered in panic. The katana was held ready in the other hand. A slight breeze drifted between them, carrying an odd scent vaguely reminiscent of burnt mint. He couldn’t quite place it.
“Don’t move,” the stranger said in response to Thomas aiming his gun.
Thomas realized the stranger was a woman. Rhae was taller than her but somehow she managed to overpower her. He heard nothing. Cursing himself silently, he lowered his gun. He was powerless. This was it. It was over. His friend was going to die and it was all his fault. Ten of those dog creature things flanked the stranger’s side. Their wounds were apparent but they seemed oblivious to them. Heart sinking deeper, Thomas couldn’t think of a way to dig himself out of this mess.
“Be gone demons!”
Gleaming shots struck two of the dog creatures. With a yelp they fell to the ground and melted into the hard dirt. The brackish goo bubbled with the stink of vomit, leaving behind two small white gold daggers in the puddles. Dropping Rhae, the stranger gripped her katana with both hands as she looked up at the rooftops. A tall woman, dressed in a dark red tunic and slacks, jumped down. She landed a few feet away from Thomas. Her skin was so black it was almost blue and her equally black hair was shaved pretty close to her scalp. Striking green eyes glared at the white woman as she threw two more of her daggers at the dog creatures, killing them.
“I will have what belongs to us,” said the white woman.
The remaining dog creatures tittered around her. The midnight woman smirked and struck another one down.
“Like hell you will,” the midnight woman said. She stepped in front of Thomas protectively. “Away with you or die like the hell spawn you are.”
The face of the white woman remained expressionless as she sheathed her katana. With a flick of her wrist what was left of the dog creatures faded away into smoke.
“Very well,” the white woman said. Placing two fingers vertically to her forehead she summoned a portal behind her. “But I will come for what belongs to us. We will not be denied.”
Thomas waited for her to step into the portal and for it to completely close before he ran to Rhae. Wrapping one arm around her, he checked her pulse. Her eyes fluttered open. Hugging her, he sighed with relief.
“Weirdo, let go of me.”
“Are you okay?”
Rhae sat up and rubbed her head. “My head is killing me, but I’ll live. You?”
“I’ll live,” Thomas said. He reloaded his gun and holstered it.
The midnight woman pretended not to pay attention to them as she collected her daggers from the puddles of goo and clean them. Sunrise had come now in full golden glory and the townsfolk were slowly peeking out to assure themselves it was indeed safe now. She cleaned the last dagger and sheathed it before coming over to Thomas and Rhae with dark look in her eyes.
“You know,” she said, “you’re lucky you’re not dead.”
Thomas groaned and helped Rhae to stand up. She fetched her crossbow and fastened to her back. With a sigh she set herself to the task of collecting whatever crossbow bolts she could recover.
“I realize that,” Thomas said, “what were those things?”
Before the woman could answer a shrill scream came from the bank’s alley way.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, what now?” Rhae said.
Thomas left the midnight woman behind to sprint toward the scream to find out. Rhae followed close behind. A small crowd had gathered around the end of the alley but they opened a path for Thomas and Rhae when they arrived. It seemed that the townsfolk had been watching them from the windows. Waiting for them inside the alley was the sheriff and the deputy. Both men were lean and a bit gray.
“This doesn’t look like the handiwork of those things, does it?” said the sheriff.
He stepped aside as Thomas drew close. The morning light shone on the broken body of their middle man pinned to the wall. A stiletto was spiked into each shoulder. Both of his legs had been smashed with a blunt object and his mouth had been stuffed with cloth to muffle his screams. Blood pooled at his feet. He had been tortured, that was for sure but Thomas could see that wasn’t what killed him. The poor man’s face was twisted in horror. Dark purple light emanated from his body like wafting smoke. His flesh had taken a transparent quality. Thomas could almost make out the bones underneath. A chill ran through him as he wondered if those dog creatures had done this to him. He never had a chance.
“How did he get back here when he ran the other way?” Rhae said.
“You know this guy?” said the deputy.
“We had business with him yesterday outside town,” Thomas said, “He ran like hell in the other direction though. Didn’t expect to find him here.”
“And sure as fuck didn’t expect to find him dead,” said Rhae.
“Well let’s get this poor man down,” said the sheriff. “He deserves a proper burial.”
Thomas nodded and pulled out his shades. Putting them on, he turned to exit the alley. Scanning the crowd and the street, he couldn’t find the mysterious midnight woman anywhere. It would seem that he needed to find his answers somewhere else. Rhae stood next to Thomas in silence as they watched the townsfolk drag the body out of the alley and lay him out on a wheeled bier in the street. Reverently they covered him with a white sheet. The women bring out white candles, hand them out, lighting them as they do, and each town member with a burning candle took a spot in the circle around the bier. A woman even brought Thomas and Rhae a candle to hold vigil for the dead man.
“Thank you,” they said.
Taking their place in the circle, they hear the soft tinkle of bells accompanied by steady foot steps. Thomas glanced toward the source of the sound. It was coming from an elderly gentleman wearing soft gray robes. Although yellowed from time, he was muscular and fit. The sun had long since weathered his skin to a deep tan. His sight seemed untroubled by the milky cataracts in his soft blue eyes. The bells were fixed to the head of his walking stick and they jingled each time it struck the ground. The crowd opened a clear path to the bier for this gentleman. With a sure and steady pace, this man made his way through the crowd but paused when he reached Thomas. Placing his hand on Thomas’ shoulder he fixed his gaze upon him for a moment. Thomas felt uncomfortable with the hushed murmurs this caused. He didn’t even know who this man was.
“You remind me of someone. A lovely woman,” the gentleman said. The crowd gasped as he smiled slightly. “Name was Lynnette. Do you know her?”
Thomas ducked his head. He wasn’t sure what to say exactly. It didn’t feel right to lie to this man. He looked up at him. “Yes, I know her.”
He patted Thomas’ shoulder. “I thought you might. You look just like her. Lovely woman.”
The gentleman walked away from Thomas towards the bier. One of the men provided him with a stool to sit on while another offered a small loaf of bread and a mug of ale. He set his walking stick down on the ground as he sat and accepted their offering. Solemnly he waved the bread over the body of the dead man before doing the same with the mug of ale. Next he ate the bread using the ale to wash it down. When he was finished, he stood up and placed the mug on the stool.
Placing his palms together in prayer he said, “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.”
“Amen,” said the townsfolk in unison.
As the town’s sexton wheeled the body away to the church’s graveyard for burial, the townsfolk extinguished and returned their candles. They dispersed to go about their daily business. The elderly gentleman picked up his walking stick and noticed the puddles of goo in the street. His face hardened with a stern intensity that both Rhae and Thomas stepped aside for. Resolutely, he stepped into the center of the mess. Rhae glanced at Thomas with a questioning glance but he shrugged.
Thomas just watched the gentleman grasp his walking stick with both hands and hold it up in front of him. He couldn’t quite hear it, but the gentleman muttered to himself as the breeze swirled around him. Thomas saw the same dark purple light from the dead body was now glowing from the puddles of goo. It was rising up like smoke and the swirling breeze caught it. With each drifting wisp snatched away, the puddles shrank until finally they disappeared completely. The breeze spun faster and faster around the gentleman. Those bells on his walking stick tinkled hard against it. Finally a bright light flashed and the breeze was gone. The gentleman lowered his walking stick and smiled. It was as if the puddles had never been there.
“Wow,” Rhae said.
“My work here is done. Time for me to return home. As should you. Give Lynnette my regards,” the gentleman said, stepping past them with a friendly wave. He paused for a moment to turn back to them. “Such a lovely woman. Be a shame if anything were to happen to her.”
They watched him load himself up on a horse-drawn buggy and leave town.
“Strange guy,” Rhae said.
Thomas only nodded as an unsettled chill struck him despite the already hot sun.
“It’s time to go home, Rhae.”
“You’re not going to stick around to figure out who skill our middle man?”
“I think those dog things got him,” Thomas said. He walked down the street towards the edge of town. Hopefully his bike was still safely hidden a mile away. “Besides, this isn’t our mess. We have a package to deliver, remember?”
“Right, business before pleasure.”